- Associated Press - Thursday, March 28, 2013

RICHMOND — A new statewide poll in Virginia reveals a sharp societal divide over whether to expand Medicaid.

Quinnipiac University’s survey released Thursday found 45 percent favor expanding the federal-state program that helps pay health care costs for the elderly, poor and disabled to an additional 400,000 Virginians just above the poverty level. Forty-three percent oppose it.

That’s within the poll’s margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, meaning public opinion on the issue is essentially even. Quinnipiac interviewed 1,098 registered Virginia voters by telephone from March 20 through Monday.

Women favor Medicaid expansion 48 percent to 39 percent, and men oppose it 48 percent to 42 percent. Black voters back expansion 68 percent to 20 percent, while whites oppose it 50 percent to 38.

Similar divides were reflected in the 2013 General Assembly. The Senate’s 20 Democrats threatened to bottle up Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation overhaul unless he and allied Republicans agreed to a process by which Medicaid expansion could proceed, even if it’s delayed indefinitely by Mr. McDonnell’s daunting cost-cutting reform prerequisites.

In the poll, 73 percent of respondents who identified themselves as Democrats preferred expansion to just 18 percent who did not. Among Republicans, 67 percent opposed while 22 percent supported broadening the program.

Among independent voters, 47 percent supported expansion and 40 percent opposed it.

Expansion of Medicaid was mandated by the federal health care overhaul. It would extend the program to cover the working poor — households with income up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $32,000 a year for a family of four or $15,400 for an individual.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer made Medicaid expansion optional for states. But states that forgo expansion forfeit a major financial incentive: the federal government pays the full cost of expansion for three years and 90 percent thereafter.

Twenty-two states have agreed to Medicaid expansion, and at least 13 have rejected it. In Virginia, the Republican governor and the GOP-dominated legislature grudgingly agreed to expansion, but only after meeting Mr. McDonnell’s exacting demands for waivers from the federal government to implement reforms that cut Medicaid’s rocketing costs to the state. Under those conditions, expansion in Virginia is unlikely until at least the middle of 2014.

This fall’s gubernatorial election could change that, however, and that’s why the public attitudes reflected in the independent poll results command attention.

Republican Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II has said Virginia should opt out of Medicaid expansion. As recently as Friday, he issued an official but nonbinding ruling that a legislative commission responsible for ensuring that the reforms are achieved and allowing expansion to proceed is unconstitutional.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe supports Medicaid expansion.

Neither candidate is opposed for his party’s nomination.